Commuting in Hong Kong

I read an article recently that really struck a chord. It’s from the April 16 2007 New Yorker, written by one Nick Paumgarten, and it’s all about commuting. Although it focuses on commuting in the USA, and inevitably spends a lot of time on driving, parts of it that deal with commuting in New York City itself are quite apposite to life here in Hong Kong.

Most strikingly, perhaps, Paumgarten quotes the punchline from a recent academic study on commuting:

Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is.

Wow! Reading this article obviously got me thinking about my own commute, which takes me not much under . . . one hour. I sincerely hope I’m making 40% more money than I deserve.

Frey and Stutzer conclude, however, that most people don’t balance the commute/salary equation with much insight or care. They’re not rational, i.e. they’re much more likely to hang onto a long commute for a marginally higher salary than they are to simply take a pay cut and have a far more pleasant lifestyle.

So I thought about it: would I really take a big pay cut just to avoid my commute? Perhaps I am grossly overpaid, and that’s why I don’t weep spontaneously thought of getting up in the morning and hitting the road for work. But the truth is, I don’t really mind my commute that much at all; I actually find it almost – may I say it? – pleasant.

Here’s what my commute looks like. I live near an MTR station that’s a terminus of the line I need to take, so I can get on an empty train. Sometimes – maybe half of the time – I get a seat. It’s not worth the stress to try to fight for a seat, since I’m only on the train for about 10 minutes. I then get off, and walk out to street level to a bus stop (this takes me three or four minutes, maybe). This bus takes me to a stop just across the street from my office. Since it’s a busy route, I typically wait five minutes or so. And since my stop is just the second one on the route, I can always get a seat. This is crucial when you’re as tall as I am, because many of Hong Kong’s older buses’ ceilings aren’t high enough to allow me to stand up straight.

So although my commute isn’t short, I consider it quite ‘easy’. I find, even after many years of such commuting, that I actually enjoy it.

Paumgarten’s analysis recognizes this possibility, because not all commutes are created equal. Crucially for us in Hong Kong, using public transport for a commute is markedly different from driving yourself. For example, the aforementioned Swiss researchers Paumgarten quotes note that:

Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards. Delays are out of their control.

Well, duh, those of us in HK might say. But I latched on to that last sentence, which I think is the key. When I’m making my commute, I actually like not having control over what happens. It’s liberating. I can read a book or otherwise amuse myself for the great majority of its duration; it’s only that short walk when I transfer in which I actually have to pay attention to what I’m doing. This lack of control isn’t popular with everybody, of course, but if you can see the positive side of it, it’s a big stress-reducer.

Other people’s commutes in Hong Kong of course vary across a wide spectrum. Some are shorter and easier than mine in some ways, but harder in others. For example, Mrs Tall’s got what I call an ‘umbrella-free’ commute. She can stay under cover all the way from our flat to her office, courtesy of covered walkways into and out of the MTR stations she travels between. But she’s got the downside of taking a much more crowded line than mine; when she changes trains, she often has to wait for several to pass by before she can get on board, and then it’s so crowded there’s little chance she can read or do anything else productive.

There are also some Hong Kong commuters whose travels are so extensive that they fall into the ‘extreme commuter’ category the article discusses. I think most belong to two categories. The first includes those who live deep into the countryside of the New Territories, or away from the ferry piers or other transport connections on the outlying islands such as Cheng Chau and Lantau. The second comprises people who live in Hong Kong and essentially commute across the border to Guangdong province – as well as those who do the opposite. There are, in fact, quite a few people who work in Hong Kong but who wish to take advantage of the much lower cost of living across the border; they’re the ones you’ll find on those long-haul buses that run from different parts of the city up to Lok Ma Chau, and then beyond . . .

There’s another advantage to Hong Kong life that may take some of the pressure off us in terms of commuting and generally getting around. Paumgarten paraphrases Robert Putnam, a well-known American sociologist, on the combined effect of our commuting and other day-to-day travels:

Putnam likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. . . . The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had.

Thinking about this, I can really see Putnam’s point: although my home/work commute takes almost an hour, I can walk over to my neighborhood shopping mall in just a couple of minutes. If I had to drive for an hour to get home from work, then pick up Mrs Tall and drive for another substantial chunk of time to get to the supermarket to do some food shopping, I’d be cranky too – or at least crankier than I already am.

Most of us in Hong Kong don’t sleep near where we work. But nearly all of us can shop very near either our homes or our workplaces. This makes for ‘triangles’ that may have a couple of long sides, but then a short third side that makes them disproportionately narrow; they therefore cover very little area.

When I finished reading the article, and started thinking about writing this one, one other thing struck me. I realized that I like my commute because I see it as time I get wholly to myself, and that I can use as I please, at least within the constraints of being on a train and a bus. This leads to me being jealous of that time, which in turn leads to me being – sometimes, at least – excessively irritated when that time is interrupted or disturbed. It also occurred to me that I’m not exactly alone in this. The guy up there in the row of seats in front of me is likely just as pleased to have 30 unbroken minutes in which he can read his book – or play his video game or talk on his phone or whatever – as I am with mine. And he’s likely just as irritated when his bubble is invaded.

Is it possible that this phenomenon, which is an inevitable product of lots of people doing lots of long-term commuting, is at least partly the cause of so many complaints about rudeness in Hong Kong? That is, commuting time for most of us isn’t really ‘public’ time; since we’re so deeply grooved in our commuting patterns, and so anxious to make something personally positive out of that time, the last thing we want to intrude on us is the need to be superficially polite and civil. That takes time and attention, and frankly we just don’t want to begrudge that kind of effort each and every day.

So how about the rest of you: what are your commutes like? Any horror stories? Coping strategies? We’d love to hear them.


Commuting by bicycle

I didn't get time to read the article, but did a search for "bike" and "bicycle" and noted that there wasn't an references to them. I'm surprised that a new york commuting article doesn't mention one, and I've thought about cycling into work and know people who do.... it sounds like your commute wouldn't work for that, but wanted to throw the idea out to the people reading this that it might be an option for some... I live in North Point and work in Sai Wan, and it would take me around 40 mins to cycle.... around the same time as the express bus takes now...!


It doesn't worth the risk

Hi there,

Even if you are an expert cyclist and you cycle by the book, it's not worth the risk riding on bicycles in the main streets here in Hong Kong Island. Except in the small hours there is just too much traffic for a bicycle. It's not the risks of you bumping onto people or things, it's the risks of being bumped or crushed by motor vehicles, especially those driven by reckless/lunatic maxicab/truck drivers in town.

Even if you are cycling along the tram tracks the risks are still there. What happened to the motorcycle accident late last week or early this week in Kwun Tong might give you some clues where a bike had been affected by the heavy currents caused by a dump truck. The passenger was crushed to death. Consider this, a motor bike is much heavier than a bicycle and yet it was affected by such currents........... Scary, huh?

Best Regards,

Struck a symphony.

This didn't just strike a chord buddy. That's EXACTLY my take on the whole commuting thing. In fact this is a large part of my job seeking equation. Or even life seeking equation at the moment. As I came to Hong Kong from Canada for the exact reason, of short commuting.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those who can read a book or play the NDS on a bus. I'd barf all over the place. I can read in MTR, but the florescent lighting makes me feel like I am in the office. While I was in Canada, my only form of entertainment were either an mp3 player, or a tune I hum in the head. Quite entertaining until you did it consecutively for 12 years.

Once I was at lunch with a mate who commute 1.5 hours everyday to work. We started this topic and he felt completely fine with it (you know the tuen munners). He asked why I am so against commuting and naturally I gave him the 3 hours per days during my college years story. Now, it takes me 5 - 10 minutes to get to work. But if my job required a 1 hour round trip per-day:

60 Minutes - 20 Minutes = 40 Minutes
x20 per month = 800 Minutes
x11 per year = 8800 Minutes
/60 = 146 Hours
/24 = 6 Days of your finite life saved to sit around picking nose.

Using my friend's contrast:

(180 - 20) x 20 x 11 /60 / 24 = 24 Days of free annual leave to sit around and pick your nose until it bleeds.

Now when the difference is that big would you take that job in Tuen Mun for 2k more? Excluding the bus monies? Providing both are similar jobs with similar prospects? Very interesting isn't it.

Putting a value on commuting time

Here's an example of someone who added up the costs and the hours spent, and worked it backwards to calculate an hourly salary.

Turns out although his mental self-image was of a well-paid internet hotshot, his hourly rate put him somewhere between: "UPS delivery boy and McDonald's chef, and I'm sure the UPS guy was in better shape."


The commuting 'triangle'

That's a fascinating case study, MrB! I noticed right away that the guy bemoaned the brutal commuting 'triangle' between his home, job and girlfriend's house that he had to negotiate.

His working-from-home-parks-concerts-street corners solution really sounds attractive, too, but it's too bad not that many employers here in HK are very interested in allowing, much less promoting, that kind of flexibility.

For those of us who commute

For those of us who commute by ferry, it can be a truly pleasant trip to work. After a walk past jungly trees and village houses, it's a half-hour trip over (generally) calm waves, then we sail into a working harbor full of colorful fishing boats. It's a great way to start and end the day.

So true

The DB ferry is a great way to commute. It's peaceful, requires no interchanges, and I'm guaranteed a seat(a seat which is nicer than economy class on most airlines.

The commute is quiet, relaxing, and there's wireless if I just have to get an early start to my day.

I would not have it any other way. If I am not within 10-15 minutes of my office, as I was in my previous apartment, I have to have a relaxed commute.

That's why I can't comes to grips with the typical HK attitude that one must live within 5 minutes of an MTR station, regardless of proximity to the office or perks to the lifestyle. People were questioning my commute from DB without even stopping to consider that they spend more time commuting and have a more stressful commute as well. "But DB is so far!"

More on extreme commuting

This article from BusinessWeek magazine is a much briefer but just as shocking expose of the spread of long-distance commuting in the USA. Scary stuff!


far out!  what a compromise...  now if I were a smart company in the USA I'd research those commuter belts and put my company near to one with the best workers - winnings all round!

I love my 15 minute commute to work walking through the botanical gardens! 

Tale of Long Commute (not mine)

When we first married, SK-Baba and I lived in Sai Kung Town centre. It made a very good commute for me (5 minutes to mini-bus terminus + ~ 10 minutes to work on minibus) - but SKBaba at that point worked west of Tuen Mun (yes, it's possible). He would take a mini-bus to Choi Hung (~ 20 min.) and from there the MTR to Kowloon Tong (~ 5-7 min.) and then get on a special coach arranged by his company, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour on the TM Highway. Getting home was worse, especially on Friday nights, because he would have to join the queue w/ all the people trying to get to Sai Kung town for dinner or squid fishing. He did that commute for a year before we moved slightly nearer (Tai Wai).

Then, T-G, he got transferred to the Mong Kok office, where he worked for a few years, and now his office is in Sham Shui Po.  We also moved to outer Sai Kung - so 10 mintes to Choi Hung and then ~10 or 15 minutes to Sham Shui Po.


My commute is very easy. Either walk to the KMB stop (~10 minutes) and wait and then ride the bus for 5-7 minutes - or (as I do now) drive ~ 7 minutes because I take SK-son to school next to where I work and it's easier to carry his impedimenta and cope w/ rain etc.


When he starts KGV, he like his sister, SK-daughter, will take the shuttle bus to Choi Hung and then the KMB to Argyle street and then walk up the hill. Then I'll start taking the bus again too. 



Cycling is perfect in Hong Kong

Nick, you are right - a bicycle is the fastest, most flexible and most satisfying way to get around Hong Kong.  While the driver is stopping at the first traffic snarl-up, and the public transport user is descending into the bowels of the earth to wait for a train, or waiting for a bus that will stop every 200 metres (plus waiting in traffic), I will be breezing past everyone, travelling when I want, where I want, cruising at about the same speed as a motor vehicle (in town) and arriving and parking within feet of my office.

Thomas, let me share how cycling isn't the way you see it. You say there is "too much traffic". But that's the point!  There are lots of cumbersome, slow-moving motor vehicles, clogging up each other's way, while a bike you travel at about the same speed between sets of traffic lights, and pass the stationary traffic.  Meanwhile - I'm also part of the traffic, taking my place in the road.  If there are a lot of other vehicles, they are behind me, or I'll pass them.  It's not a problem.  Plus, I'm easing congestion for others, as a bike takes up very little road area.

Secondly, your morbid focus on risk misrepresents how we use all the road.  As we drive or ride, we each constantly assess where to be, how fast to go, in order to keep safe.  Cars and buses don't keep pummelling into each other (even when drivers don't have to personally fear the odd bump at low speed).  So an urban-skilled cyclist, paying extra attention, is able to avoid accidents.  It's true that the lousy driving skills of others makes this more trouble than it should be, but cycling is not suicidal, or we wouldn't do it.

Then, cycling brings all those other benefits - health (longer, healthier lives, even allowing for accident risk), the environment (helping others breathe cleaner air, in a quieter city), economical (to buy and maintain, but also reducing public expenditure on roads, car parks etc).

Others on this thread have talked about the value of commuting time as an antidote to work, and on a bike, after a day in the office, it is liberating to be out and away, more in control of where I go than anyone else around me.  I can't wait to get on my bike.


Commuting via bike

Wheeliefine (well chosen, that!), thanks for making a strong case for biking. I'd be interested in knowing what route you follow (just generally, if you don't want to give away exactly where you live and work) and where you also bike for fun.

Bike anywhere you want to

I'm on Hong Kong side a lot, so I tend to ride on Hennessy Road and King's Road, and then off down whatever side street. In Kowloon (after relaxing on my exclusive (lower) deck of the Wanchai-TST ferry), I almost invariably head up Nathan Road to wherever I'm going.

All roads are legal for cycling (except a few freeways, tunnels, and - inexplicably - the little sections of road that cross Gloucester Road) and most are safe, when you keep alert. One I avoid is Java Road, where minibuses tend to go too fast to keep aware of, and then swerve past too close. But generally, with good road positioning, you can control where they go.

Re: Cycling is perfect in Hong Kong?

Hi there,

I still think it is NOT for everybody.  Not everybody is trained for that anyway.  I doubt how many people are up to the stressful street traffic especially most locals tend to have long working hours.  A bike, when being used in the streets, is being treated as if it is a motorized vehicle.

I also don't see paddling in streets full of vehicle exhaust and dust is good to your health even if you are wearing a mask to filter out the particules.

Best Regards,


good on you

YOu're setting a good example, but I fear that the road manners and behaviour in HK are not good for your cause!

Yes, you need the right skills

In the last 20 years, urban commuter cycling has taken off in cities around the world - from Paris, London and Amsterdam; New York, San Francisco and Portland to Taipei, Kaohsiung and Shanghai. Their roads are often just as crowded and busy as Hong Kong.

Whether drivers are aggressive (New York or London) or unaware of cyclists' needs (here), a cyclist certainly has to be alert, and of course a good skill level is needed. That's why many governments support cycle training. (The UK's 'Bikeability' system has three levels: basic bike control (in a non-traffic area), riding on quietish streets, and riding in full, normal traffic.

Cycling can make a really useful contribution to urban transport - and for me at least riding is less stressful than trying to walk on Hong Kong's clogged pavements.


hey mate,

I am quite into cycling too as I have been cycling 11miles a day in and out of uni in Edinburgh. I'll be moving back to Hong Kong soon and I've always been wondering the if I could cycle in Hong Kong. Do you have any photos or videos of roadies cursing the streets of Hong Kong?